Review: A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster, July 2017. Buy a copy from Powell’s, Indiebound, or amazon; see if your friends are reading it at goodreads.
This June brought a pleasant surprise: my effusive review of James Gleick’s The Information brought me to the attention of Jimmy Soni, co-author of the new Claude Shannon biography, A Mind at Play. He sent me an early copy of their book, gratis, in exchange for an honest review. Here it is.
A Mind at Play is a warm introduction to Claude Shannon. Like any good biography, it contextualizes its subject and his work, while introducing us to the person as well.
It’s not a bad introduction to information theory, either. The authors admit they’re not mathematicians or engineers, but for that, the explanations aren’t bad. (I quibbled with some of their analogies, but not enough to go into here.) If you want a really thorough pop-science/pop-math treatment of information theory, pick up James Gleick’s The Information, but Soni and Goodman explain it more than well enough for a biography - if this book is all you read about it, you’ll understand what it’s about, why it’s important, and how Shannon contributed to it. Of course if you’re feeling more adventurous, Shannon’s seminal paper is pretty readable, and it was expanded into a book with some contextualization for a broader audience.
The book’s title hints at its core conceit, that Shannon’s genius was rooted in his sense of play. It repeats the commonplace of the genius caricature: he works on whatever he wants, mostly impractical silly stuff, because his brilliance refuses to be bound by convention or common sense; he cares little for money, reward, or fame. They illustrate this with some entertaining stories - Shannon unicycling through the halls of MIT, or building a calculator that operates in Roman Numerals - but it feels like the authors try to wring too much out of it. For me, it’s enough that Shannon was brilliant and playful; I don’t need to mine that for a grand theory of genius. (If you’d like to hear Shannon’s thoughts on creative thinking, I found his notes for a lecture he gave on that subject.)
Some of the Shannon stories here are well-known - particularly the ones about his inventions, since the invention itself is most of the story anyway. But what is probably new from this book is that the authors interviewed Shannon’s family and colleagues, giving us a much deeper look at Shannon’s personality. For instance, Shannon was married twice, and each courtship lasted only months. Or that Shannon disliked to travel, and was not an adventurous eater, but when he was offered awards and lectures across the globe, he would accept, partly because his wife loved to see the world.
Bottom line: it’s a good look at part of the 20th century, at the math and technology that underpin the 21st, and one of the lives that shaped it.